Understanding Cultural Gaps for Business Travelers

Businessmen exchanging business card in restaurant
Thomas Barwick/Iconica/Getty Images

Sometimes it's easy to know how to do the right thing, like holding the door open for the person behind you, but it can become a whole lot trickier when you're in a different culture. Do you shake hands when you meet someone? Do you tell that great joke you just heard? Do you bow? Unless your an expert in foreign relations, it can be difficult to know the right thing to do. It can be especially embarrassing (or even costly) for business travelers to make a cultural mistake.

To help understand the implications of cultural gaps while traveling for business, About.com Business Travel Guide David A. Kelly interviewed Gayle Cotton, author of the bestselling book, Say Anything to Anyone, Anywhere: 5 Keys To Successful Cross-Cultural Communication. Ms. Cotton is an internationally recognized authority on Cross-Cultural Communication. Ms. Cotton provided a number of compelling insights into cultural gaps and issues that are perfect for business travelers.

Why Is It Important for Business Travelers to Be Aware of Cultural Gaps?

You need to be proactive, or you will likely be reactive. Too often business travelers assume that business people from other cultures communicate the same way as themselves and that they conduct business in a similar fashion. This is clearly not the case. There are cultural gaps in what is considered respectful or not, cultural gaps in attire preference, cultural gaps in how direct or indirect they are, cultural gaps in greetings, formality, language, and time differences to name a few. If you don’t know what the gaps are, you can be sure you’ll fall into at least one of them!

Common Mistakes

One of the first and most noticeable mistakes is simply how we greet people. Westerners are taught to use a firm, assertive, handshake, look someone directly in the eye, offer a business card with one hand, and with minimal social exchange get directly to the business at hand. This may work in many cultures however, it won’t work in the Asian/Pacific cultures where handshakes are rather gentle, eye contact is less direct, business cards are exchanged with two hands, and relationships are developed over time before business can be conducted.

The Impact of Making a Mistake

It depends on how serious the mistake is. Small infractions, for example greeting differences, are usually chalked up to ignorance and forgiven. Major infractions, for example causing "loss of face" in the Asian/ Pacific cultures, will cause permanent damage that rarely can be undone. We are homogenizing as a global culture, so there is greater awareness in general. Consequently, we are adapting as cultures to meet somewhere in the middle.

Bias or Preexisting Cultural Perceptions

Awareness is the first step! Learn about the cultural business and social protocol for the countries you travel to and do business with. Everyone has preexisting perceptions about different cultures and different types of people. It's inherent in our upbringing and part of who we are. For example, a blonde, female "American" in the 90s who began teaching cross-cultural communication in Europe, might quickly become aware that she already had 3 strikes: strike one - being "American," and what do Americans know about culture; strike two – being female when it wasn't common for companies to have women instructors in high-level business; strike three – the dumb blonde jokes are global! If such a person had been more aware of preexisting perceptions, she likely would have changed her approach by dressing very conservatively, being more serious in her business style, and pulling that blonde hair back into a French twist.

Body Language in Different Cultures

Body language is likely to be quite different, and could mean entirely different things from one culture to another. One of the most common things that will immediately start you off on the wrong foot is a gesture 'faux pas.' It’s all too easy to unintentionally offend someone with a commonly used gesture that may be obscene in another culture. Even our most important leaders have made this mistake! President George H.W. Bush made headlines in Canberra, Australia, in 1992 when he gave a palm inward V for victory or peace sign. In essence, he greeted the Australians by flashing their version of the symbol for 'Up yours!'—the Australian equivalent of the U.S. middle finger up. He later issued a formal apology, which was humorous, considering that it was just the day before when he stated that, "I'm a man that knows every gesture you've ever seen—and I haven't learned a new one since I've been here!"

Increasing Effectiveness in Person, on the Phone, and in Email

The fastest and easiest way is to model the style of someone in person, on the phone, and by email. They are telling you how they like to communicate so pay attention. In person, it’s easy to observe someone's body language, expressions, and business style. Adapt to their style and be more or less demonstrative and expressive accordingly. On the phone, if someone is direct and to the point – you can do the same. If they are more social with a degree of "small talk" – be the same way with them. In email – model the sender. If the sender starts with "Dear," start your email with "Dear." If they use surnames, use surnames as well. If they have a social email style versus a direct style, model that. If their signature line is "Regards," "Best regards," or "Warm regards," use the same in replying to them. There are many levels of "regards" that dictate the caliber of the relationship for certain cultures.

Was this page helpful?